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Bridging the Gap

Well, hi there!

Grant was kind enough to introduce me to you all the other day, so this should come as no surprise. My name is JT Jordan, and I'm the new guy- the "stats guy," to be exact. I ran the Giants-oriented site Triples Alley, and I also contribute to The Hardball Times. And it's an honor to say that I'm now writing for McCovey Chronicles.

This is new for all of us- aside from Steve's Minor Lines and the occasional overflow thread, the main stories are Grant's. And all of a sudden there's this new guy - and not just any new guy, but one of those dreaded "stats guys." You know, one of those guys that probably lives in his Mother's basement, living off of Cheetos and Hot Pockets. One of those stats-crazed dunces that Bruce Jenkins despises so darn much. One of those mathy Nerdy-McNerd-Nerds that is actually nerdy enough to believe that baseball isn't actually played by people; it's something that is completely and totally quantifiable by whatever your spreadsheet tells you. And all he probably wants to do is suck the life and soul out of a game you hold so near and dear to your hearts by telling you that everything you ever thought you knew about the game of baseball was dead wrong.

This couldn't be further from the truth.

Believe it or not, I'm not here to persuade you to become lovers of sabermetrics. There's no need to worry- I won't be going door to door with a copy of The Hidden Game of Baseball, asking if you've accepted Pete Palmer as baseball's lord and savior. I don't pray to Bill James. I don't live in my Mother's basement. I like Cheetos every once in a while (I'm a Kettle Chips kind of guy), but I don't really care for Hot Pockets. I'd actually be proud to be a nerd, too - because that would mean I "avidly pursue intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests." The rest of the definition, "(...) rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities," though, doesn't really fit - I love going out, playing sports, and going to ballgames. Which...also means that I don't believe the game is played on paper.

Huh. Well, there goes that stereotype. And if you ask a bunch of other "stat geeks," you'll probably hear the exact same thing.

I love sabermetrics because it's a form of critical thinking that allows me to study a game that I grew up with and love with all of my heart. Once I stopped playing, I needed another outlet for my baseball "fix," and found sabermetrics to be a wonderful way of finding more meaning in the game. Bill James refers to sabermetrics as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball," and I can see why this turns so many people off- by making the game objective, you're stripping it of its subjectivity, which in essence turns it into a science more than an art. By quantifying different aspects of the game and attributing numerical values to it, you're taking away some of the magic that comes by simply watching and enjoying the game. I wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment - I don't feel any different watching a game now, despite being "tainted" by sabermetrics, than I did when I was a little boy. In fact, it's increased my appreciation for the game. There's still that sense of wonderment when I'm at the park or when I'm watching a game on the 'tube. Astronomers still marvel at the beauty of the universe despite spending countless hours studying it, so I fail to see how sabermetrics is really any different. The passion for the game is always there; the difference is in the approach. Some are more than happy to just watch the game and love it for what it is; others are more interested in the nuts and bolts and ways to quantify what it is we see with our eyes.

Baseball and statistics have been intertwined throughout the course of the game's existence. Baseball has a very rich history - one that has seen many adaptations in the way it is played and approached, but interestingly one that's seen very little advancement in the way it is interpreted and analyzed until recent years.* It's been dominated for well over a century by very crude ways to value performance - batting average, runs batted in, wins and losses, etc.- but the game, as we all know, is much more complicated than that. To use such unrefined measuring tools...well, it's almost an insult to the complexity of the game. Sabermetrics is our collective attempt to better capture that complexity. It's there to supplement the game and to enhance our knowledge of it, not to reinvent it or to ruin it.

At the same time, I don't think the numbers are being interpreted correctly. I don't know why that is- I'm guessing it's because not enough warning labels have been applied, or because it hasn't been explained properly. One statistic that comes to mind is Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Its creator, Tom Tango, will tell you himself that FIP is meant to look at one aspect of pitching- much like how on base or slugging percentage is meant to illustrate one aspect of hitting. Yet it's being implemented as the main component of a value statistic over at Fangraphs and is being cited commonly as a solid measure of a pitcher's true value. Somewhere, somehow, someone misinterpreted it and it spread. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is being grossly misused as well- ask its creator, Mitchel Lichtman, and he'll give you a long list of caveats to go along with the metric. But it's still being cited left and right as being a precise figure.** And don't get me started on Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP).

Sabermetrics are far from definitive, but they provide us with wonderful tools to assess a player's performance and they give us a reasonable means to predict future performance as well. A lot of sabermetric principles suggest things that contradict long-held notions of baseball - things like clutch hitting not being a skill, or pitchers having very little control over balls in play. These are not definitive answers, yet they're often portrayed as if they are. Even with the evidence that "disproves" old-fashioned beliefs, I'm of the Sagan school of thought that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Just because we don't have the ability to detect something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist; just that we may not have proper ways to test for it. Again, sabermetrics is far from perfect. But it gives us a better foundation than what we've had in the past, and this puts us in a better position than what we were in before.

I'm not just here to provide commentary and statistical analysis on our beloved San Francisco Giants- I'm here to bridge the gap between the saberists and the non-saberists. If you have any questions or don't understand something, please don't hesitate to ask questions. I don't bite.

*This isn't completely true, of course- over the decades, different statistics have been designed ad nauseum. I'm referring to the acceptance of the metrics by a much larger audience as compared to a very select few.

**Also, I wish we would stop citing metrics to the tenth place- just round to the nearest whole number. It's asserting a level of confidence that we really just don't have in the estimates, and personally, I find it a bit misleading.